Motor Monday: What Does Luxury Even Mean?

Posted by: Matt Iasenzaniro onJuly 6th, 2015

When I was a teenager there was a distinct difference between a Ford Taurus and a BMW 3-series. Heated seats, heated mirrors, dual-zone climate control… 50% more money was buying you features exclusive to brands known for their luxury. Features that you wouldn’t find in any similarly priced Domestic or Japanese vehicle, let alone something cheaper. Now you can find yourself picking out features in a Kia that aren’t in a more expensive Mercedes. Does this mean Kia is now a luxury brand? Does it mean Mercedes isn’t? I think most people would disagree with both. Maybe they should think harder.

It used to be easy to identify luxury, there were tangible things you could point to and say “You’ll only find this in a high-end car”. What do you point at now? The line between luxury brands and “other” brands is all but gone. Today’s Hyundai has a comparable interior to a BMW for less money. Styling? I’ll take an Accord over a C-class for exterior looks any day, and Hyundai poaching Peter Schreyer from Audi has been a significant part of their recent success. Performance? Well luxury brands have never really had a lock on that. I’ve cherry picked a couple examples here but the fact is I could list off a lot more, which isn’t something I could say 10 or 15 years ago. There is no longer something you can touch or see that distinguishes a luxury brand from anybody else. So why are the Germans still luxury brands and the Koreans aren’t?

Well, cliche warning, it seems to be the badge. The Koreans and Americans have been doing some aggressive marketing to try and change peoples’ perception and let the public know “Hey, we make really great cars now, please get over yourself and come drive one”, and I hope it works. Of course, it took nearly a decade of making really good cars for Hyundai to shed its garbage image and become a legitimate contender, I’m not holding my breath for Joe Public to elevate them further. Not that this perception problem is limited to non-enthusiasts. Hell, car guys hold some of the strongest and wrongest opinions of all. These guys will have one bad car and swear off the brand for life, as if that makes any sense (Full disclosure: I will never buy another Mazda for, uh, totally dissimilar reasons. *cough*). One generation will have a publicized issue so they assume every generation is bad. One car their cousin owned will have a problem so the whole brand gets a bad image because of it. Windsor would be impressed by all the salt that flows on the Beyond forums because people take a single, usually second hand, anecdote as irrefutable evidence of WHATEVER THEY WANT.

In addition to basic brands trying to elevate themselves, the Germans are doing a wonderful job of mingling with the unwashed masses by releasing cars like the 2-series, A3 and CLA. None of these are bad cars but they’re certainly not a cut above the competition, and their cost reflects that. The barrier to the badge has been lowered so the exclusivity, and the prestige, are diminished. Do they care? Probably not, sales are sales after all, but if luxury brands don’t care about the badge anymore then why should anybody else? Maybe it’s not so much about the logo as the designation. I wouldn’t call the CLA a luxury car, but I’d slap anybody who said the S-class was anything but. Maybe the bar for exclusive luxury has been raised high enough that there are no longer luxury brands, just luxury cars. Kinda like das German brand I’ve been subtly ignoring this whole time. The Golf and Phaeton existed at the same time for a while, and mirrors the prior example. I’m not sure whether anybody calls VW a luxury brand, but they sure as hell had a luxury car at one point.

It may sound like I wouldn’t buy a German car but that’s not at all the case. The 235i is amazing amounts of fun, I’d love a GLA 45 for winter and my wife would probably sell me for a TT-S. However, I wouldn’t buy any of those vehicles for their heritage or status or the massage chairs in their service departments. They’re the right tool for the job because they check all of MY boxes and happen to be nearly the same price. There are cheaper cars that check similar boxes, and more expensive cars that check more boxes. If the status is on your list, and you believe a car gives you a certain status, then I encourage you to buy it. Always buy the car that makes you happy, even if it doesn’t make sense on paper. Whatever your criteria, if you buy the car that puts the biggest smile on your face then it doesn’t really matter what the logo looks like, or whether it massages your butt. Unless butt massages are at the top of your list. Then, yeah, buy a car that rubs your bum.

When he’s not busy writing about cars or travelling the auto show circuit, he’s reviewing apps and video games related to the automotive world. In his spare time, Matt is a motorcycle enthusiast, trying not to kill himself riding along with the crazy local drivers. He is also a weekly contributor in the Motor Mondays segment on News Talk 770.

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